A trip to Þingvellir

On Saturday I went to Þingvellir with Sindri (he is the Icelander that I went for coffee with before). Þingvellir is quite a big deal in a lot of ways. Geologically it's pretty incredible, because it's on the border of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates - they are at different levels and you can see exactly where they meet.

Historically it is even more interesting (or perhaps I'm just more interested in history). Þingvellir is the traditional site of the Icelandic Alþingi, or national assembly. All national governmental goings-on are now held in Reykjavík, but from c. 930 to the union with Norway in 1262 they took place at Þingvellir. Everyone who was anyone in Iceland (and a lot of people who weren't) would attend the annual þing. The official purpose of the assembly was to create new laws and to settle in court, with a jury, legal disputes which people had not been able to resolve by themselves. It was also an important social occasion. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people from all over the sparsely-populated island were temporarily in one place, so it was a great opportunity to keep in touch with friends and relatives, make new friendships and alliances, meet prospective marriage partners and so on.

The government, such as it was, was made up of góðar (plural of góði), which loosely translates as ‘chieftains’ - these were generally the wealthiest farmers and those who were the most skilled lawyers, although the position was originally linked to running temples in the old Norse religion. A góði was more powerful the more supporters he had, and in return for support he was expected to offer legal counsel and protection. Since Icelanders could freely transfer their support to a different góði if they were unhappy with the performance of one, it was a form of quasi-democracy – although you became a góði by buying or inheriting the position, not by being elected. In theory, every free Icelander also had the same rights before the law (in practice money spoke quite loudly). Although there was no single leader as such, the most important man at the Alþingi was the Lawspeaker, who was elected by his peers. He was expected to know all of the laws of the land off by heart, and every year he would recite a portion from the Lögberg (Law Rock). If you ever read an Icelandic saga, you will notice that Þingvellir and the Alþingi are narrative lynchpins - a lot of the most important action, meetings and decisions take place there.

Even after Iceland came under the Norwegian crown, the Alþingi continued to meet every year at Þingvellir, although with the scope of its function reduced and its autonomy limited. It was banned by the Danes (who then had control of Iceland) in 1799 and when it was finally restored in 1844 it was relocated to Reykjavík. Þingvellir remains a site of great national significance, though. When Iceland declared independence in 1944, it was at Þingvellir.

The pictures have come out looking a bit grey - the weather was quite bright really.

Almannagjá, the biggest chasm caused by continental drift. The name means 'Everyman's Gorge', because everyone used to walk this way to get to the þing.


Öxárarfoss (Axe-river Falls)

This bit of Öxará (Axe-river) that is iced over is called Drekkingarhylur (Drowning Pool), because women deemed to be of slack morals were drowned here in the olden days.

Here we are standing on the Lögberg, I think.

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